On 10 December 1950, William Faulkner began his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with these words, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit…” As art transcends the artist, poetry transcends the poet. Faulkner further elaborated upon the importance of artwork over the artist in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956. Referring to the futility of conflict over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, he contends, “…what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”
This is what I had in mind when I started editing 100 Great Indian Poems and its companion volume 100 More Great Indian Poems. The poetry anthologies I have come across have a clear emphasis on ‘the poets,’ illustrated in the titles such as Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Nine Indian Women Poets or 60 Indian Poets. These My Words, edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, which could be otherwise daunting and inaccessible to common people, may be an exception. These lines from De Souza’s poem ‘Meeting Poets’ are telling –
I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea
A general reader does not need to know which prizes a poet has won, how many books has s/he published or which festivals has s/he attended; the charm and force of an individual poem is sufficient to move the reader. Poetry survives the poets because of its timeless and intrinsic value. Therefore, I don’t understand the obsession of the 20th century anthologists of Indian poetry with the poets.
I was fascinated with Rashmirathi by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar while growing up as a child in Bihar. I chanced upon my father’s worn-out copy of this book at home when I was in class four. The magic that I had felt in the sound and energy of words in Rashmirathi stays with me till date. This Hindi epic tells the story of Karna, Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas. It was my first lesson in literature as well as in politics and diplomacy. I memorised the third canto by heart as I often read it. I still do. I have unsuccessfully tried to translate this work into English. The magic of native words is lost in translation; and therefore, verses from Rashmirathi do not find a place in the anthology of great Indian poems. For the similar reason of untranslatability, several other great poems could not fit into this anthology.
Translated literature is like perfume in a bottle. One often expects the perfume to retain its fragrance when poured into another bottle, but that isn’t possible given the nuances of the source literature – culture, period, emotions. Some essence is lost, while a new aroma is added.
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained,” renowned writer Salman Rushdie describes in his work ‘Imaginary homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991’.
This emotion echoed during a panel discussion ‘The Glory of Translation’ at the Kumaon Literary Festival. The session was moderated by Rashmi Menon, commissioning editor at Amaryllis Books.
The genre of translated books has been under experiments in the last two decades. “However, it is only in recent times that translators have new found confidence as publishers and source (literature) authors are growing to accept translated work that isn’t literal,” said literary historian & writer Rakhshanda Jalil, of Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India fame.
Increasingly, writers are Indianising their translations which helps retain a certain flavor from the original literature. Radha Chakravarty, writer & translator (of Tagore’s prominent work) is of the view that, translations are where cultures meet, people from different orientations and backgrounds come to understand each other in harmony.
Editor’s Note: There is a gap in English fiction today. This crevice is filled with thousands of stories, cultural microcosms, inventive structures, and “taboo” subjects. They are the stories told in other tongues that haven’t been translated. Even if they were, what would be the literary merit of translating stories into a language as limited as English? Is it time to expand our vocabulary, borrow from the ingenuous emotions and poetic skills that other languages possess? (Rhea Mukherjee)
The greatest value that translations of Indian literature into English can bring to the English-speaking world is not in the form of brilliant fiction yet to be discovered by the West. There’s no denying that aspect, but that’s not where the real enrichment comes from.
Instead, what those accustomed to reading English fiction will gain is the awareness of a whole new range of human experiences and emotions, which are not captured by literatures elsewhere in the world because they do not exist in those places. From socioeconomic realities to internal states of existence, every aspect of life will yield new richness through reading translated Indian fiction.
Take the word “mon” in Bangla, which appears in Hindi as “man”. In the ontology that English-reading people have acquired through their books, the heart and the mind are binary—neither word can be used to refer to the other. In Indian languages, however, this word represents neither the heart nor the mind exclusively. It takes a position, contextually to the rest of the text, on a continuum between the heart and the mind, between emotion and reason, between feeling and knowing.
It’s not Random House, and it’s not a specialized indie outfit like Europa Editions or New Directions. It’s Amazon.com. Last year, the company’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, brought out 44 new English translations from a diverse slate of literature, including Icelandic, Turkish and Korean. That’s more translated titles than any other American publisher, according to data from Three Percent, a literary translation blog at the University of Rochester.
Pakistani writer Musharraf Farooqi was at the Goa Art and Literary Fest where he expounded his thoughts on translations: The Goan
One of the highlights of this year’s Goa Lit Fest which for some had qualities of the proverbial curate’s egg, was a remarkably lively panel discussion on the dry-sounding subject of ‘translations’. Its success was partly thanks to a young Pakistani writer Musharraf Farooqi who took the firm stance that translations should remain faithful to originals. An acclaimed novelist, translator, journalist and children’s book writer, Farooqi’s books have been shortlisted for the Man Asia and DSC prizes.